The Vice is Right
A cost-benefit analysis of the truth
Dear Readers - To my surprise I have not died in the frantic process of emigrating to England from That London. I have moved in now and shall be once more posting regularly. It is remiss of me to be away so long and I apologise for that.
I hope to post a summary of the geopolitical outlook tomorrow, but for the time being here is a brief essay on the battle for reality and its casualties.
There have been a few problems with reality of late which might have resulted in your sudden bitter estrangement from your friends and family and co-workers. Whichever spittle-flecked ultimatum has been howled into your face the result is a poisonous division. Normal service may not be resumed for some time.
The polarisation around questions which themselves are becoming unmentionable results in a minefield strategy towards conversation. A thing best avoided these days due to the obvious dangers, each exchange brings a risk of some terrible and irreversible fallout. One step being like another inasmuch as it may result in an explosion. Sadly this danger tinges every exchange these days, discouraging frankness and honesty as much as it hangs over them like a health warning.
It is doing much to accelerate our digitised isolation when a real life exchange carries such a dreadful risk. One wrong move and the whole board is swept away. You can lose everything in a few words. Sentenced.
What is going on here? Why are our attempts at conversation so highly charged, our real life encounters coming to mirror the highly tribalised online groupings which have done so much to toxify relations? The issue may be more due to risk and to reward than we first realise.
The risk of speaking to people at all comes at too little reward these days. What can be lost seems to be much greater than what can be gained. But it is not just the risk of destroying relationships or losing your job which concerns us here. It is the third rail hazard of the truth.
Why are these opinions we have so divisive?
In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is not just an act of bravery, as St Eric Blair said, but it comes at a tremendous personal cost. If the truth is not what is commonly upheld then a considerable mental and emotional effort must be made to breast the wave of counterfactual ideas one encounters everyday. It is a tide of mistruth – of falsehood presented as the Right Way of Thinking. There are two obvious costs to resisting the tide.
One is the attritional fact of resistance to a flood of misinformation. The second is the cost to you personally in terms of friendships, family ties, even your employment – the longer you go on dissenting the more it costs you. It is scant consolation to be reminded of the nature of a principle, being a view for which you have made some sacrifice. To be principled is to be prepared to lose things valuable to you in the act of refusing surrender.
The truth is not the easy path, not the path of least resistance. It is the path that demands the most courage and resilience, the rewards usually reserved for people who are willing to ignore the obvious in favour of some less discomfiting – if false - version of reality.
John Gray says we are not built for truth but for survival. This means that we will select our beliefs on the basis of what good they do us. This good is immediate. What is good is what works for me, now. The future be damned, we need some release from the anxiety immediately. Our culture, being predicated on the satisfaction of desire without moral or personal restraint is calibrated to immediate gratification. The manifold addictions which compose it are all forms of reward gained in exchange for cash. Goods, services, holidays, wellness, therapy, sex, drugs legal and not - all available in virtual or tangible form at a moment’s notice, and on credit if necessary. We are in a permanent state of indenture to our desires, a palisade of urgent wants pressing in on every angle of our formerly private space. This is another kind of invasion with its own pressures. Retail therapy is universal now, so the term has vanished. When things become total they become invisible.
We can no longer name the sins to which we have given ourselves because they are immanent and emanent – they preoccupy us totally and surround us everywhere. These things formerly called sin – gluttony, greed, wrath, lust and envy, pride and sloth are all aspects of the consumer ideology. The totality takes place in the self, which is a kind of theatre of lurid fantasies animated by these capital vices, each of which contributes to the baseline growth model of consumer economies. Happy people consume less. This is bad news for the bottom line.
Our time is one of unlimited desires prompted by a mass scale market economy which makes a virtue of the necessity of sin. This is the reason we are morally blind – that we cannot see the obvious rot in front of our eyes – because to do so is to understand the whole picture is profoundly wrong and the world is not just – not even mad – but wicked.
The reason our divisions are becoming so bitter is because a society composed of strangers, isolated in the pursuit of their own limitless desires, and with little attachment to the brutalising banalisation that is the modern built environment, are interested only in their own preferences and feeling themselves good persons for all that. It is not enough to consume as much as you like, in whatever guise you wish – you must do so with a sense of liberation. Anyone seeking to place limits on this type of behaviour is seen as evil. Of course, much of the so-called environmental movement is simply another business. It sells a lifestyle with its own accoutrements and corporations now compete to rebrand themselves as green, just as they festoon themselves with rainbows and black fists and every other sigil of popular resentment presented as progress.
To this must be added the allure of the tribe. In a time when the international market erases everything else, local culture and identity are submerged by the vernacular of consumerism. Customs and traditions as well as small scale enterprises vanish, as everywhere comes to resemble everywhere else – in appearance as in opinion. A global monoculture - more properly an anti-culture – is the result, leaving people deracinated and hungry for belonging. Into this void enter the identity groups, the radical groups, the hysterical projects of crisis. It seems that today if you are not hysterical you have lost your mind – as well as the argument.
We are living in a fever dream, the collision of unlimited desire, of the dissatisfaction that inevitably entails, with the deliberate destruction of every meaningful institution and custom which used to unite us. The public space – the res publica – has become the personal space – the res idiotica. We no longer look outward except to disdain. We look inward to congratulate. It is an extreme form of preference utilitarianism where the good and the true are what suits me, now. I may be a different bundle of wants tomorrow.
This leaves us in a position where the vice is right. Where what I think is true is so, because I prefer it. This is the vice of pride. Where you must not be allowed to continue your smug, contented existence. This is the vice of envy. Where you will be made to pay for the wrongs I imagine you have committed, and everything you hold dear will be torn down. This is the vice of wrath. Where love is love – where no sexual perversion or addiction or practice, no area of life can be untainted by carnal desire. Where it is an active virtue to base your entire life on your mode of sexual gratification. This is the vice of lust. Where others can be paid to take care of your children, of your parents, of your whims, your cleaning, your garden, your donkey work, whilst you prod away at your phone. This is the vice of sloth. Where you want more things, always – greed, and will eat until you are obese – then be celebrated as a body positivity ambassador. This is the vice of gluttony.
These things have accolades attached to them and in many cases are valorised as the pinnacle of bravery. They are obviously signs that we have completely inverted our moral valuing in the headlong rush to annihilate the past. What we have annihilated is ourselves conceived as anything other than guiltless capricious consumers, as self important if empty people whose lives lack any higher purpose than the acquisition of ever cheaper consumer goods.
Indicating truths such as the above, which are obvious on reflection, is dangerous to your ability to command a wage and to leave in peace apart from the mob. To be offended is to be right these days. An accusation from the right person is all that is needed to convict under British hate speech laws.
It is a sign that we are living in the postliberal era that these ‘freedoms’ can only be protected by an invasive and humourless legion of self appointed commissars backed up by a surveillance state. This is of course a deeply illiberal apparatus yet it is the only way the claims (or ‘rights’) of increasingly extreme identity groups can be protected from otherwise normal people.
The nihilism of the consumer life is what drives people to seek escape in extreme formulations of identity and crisis. It affords the opportunity for the person to feel meaningful – even heroic – without making any sacrifices at all. In fact, in most of these cases it is other people who bear the often awful cost of these acts of so-called heroism. This kind of heroism is usually just extreme and exhibitionist selfishness. By this means a kind of fame can be achieved, often with generous compensation and some revenge, too. The allure of a career in victimhood is partly explained by the instant power it confers on the victim to victimise and humiliate everyone else.
As we can see, the rewards of not seeing the truth are immense – for a while. You can please yourself, literally. You can select beliefs which flatter your preferences. You can destroy your friends on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet if they dare to offend you by disagreement and you may be heavily remunerated if you succeed in bringing your histrionic grievances before a court.
What might also be at stake - apart from you – is the fact that people who have not surrendered are a reminder. If you are not a miserable addict, if you are happy – you are a reminder that happiness is possible in this flawed world and perhaps that happiness is in the power of the individual. This is offensive to the resentful.
If you are not a coward and will not agree for the sake of a quiet life - which is never quiet but always haunted by the whispering of your conscience – you are a reminder that some people did not give in to the madness. This is offensive to those who lack the courage to defend the truth.
If you do not agree with some hysterical nonsense or other you are a reminder of common sense, of the idea that arguments are not won by screaming insults the loudest and longest. That the strength of your feelings is not the justice of your argument. It is an insulting reminder that judgement is important and still alive, and is offensive to those who lack basic discernment.
It offends the vanity of the vain, who often believe in things having the same presentation and no more substance than other advertisements for things they like. It offends them for you to disagree because it is not enough for them to be free to believe anything they like, they must also feel a better person for it. Better than you, of course. The suggestion of disagreement is offensive as it suggests to the zealot that another point of view is possible. To indicate another way of seeing is to challenge everything these people are, because their emotions are their identity, which is invested in the beliefs they constantly broadcast to the world, like the relay-stations for consumer media which they actually are. These people seek insult in real difference and it is offensive to suggest their worldview is as packaged and franchised as a McDonald’s happy meal – bland, poor in nutrition – yet satisfying and requiring no effort to consume. To people who expect to excitedly unbox agreement your point of view is a violation.
To display any of the virtues is to oppress someone else today. They are not merely seen as vices but offences against others. #StaySane. Resist Normophobia. We are obliged to live in the asylum but we are not compelled to go mad.
"Happy people consume less. This is bad news for the bottom line."
A brilliant observation of the forces that plot our subjugation.
Congratulations on your escape Frank. Acting with our feet and our wallets is the most effective vote we have at our disposal every day. It’s also the best way I know to build the life we want for ourselves and for our families.